USA TODAY International Edition

Truthfulne­ss a concern in Trump probe

Portions of grand jury report out Thursday

- Bart Jansen

A Georgia grand jury is concerned witnesses lied in their investigat­ion of former President Donald Trump and his allies’ efforts to interfere in the state’s 2020 election, raising the specter of potential charges.

Descriptio­ns of the alleged lies could be unveiled Thursday, when parts of the grand jury’s long- awaited report on the Trump probe is made public. Though the witnesses won’t be identified and no one has been charged, prosecutor­s could pursue perjury charges as leverage to broaden the investigat­ion, according to legal experts.

Charges for lying to investigat­ors or perjury are rare because they can be difficult to prove and peripheral to the main case, according to legal experts. But federal prosecutor­s have convicted witnesses in recent years with lying to authoritie­s during previous investigat­ions of Trump.

“That expands the scope of potential defendants quite a bit,” said Clark Cunningham, a law professor at Georgia State University. “It also opens up the possibilit­y for the district attorney to proceed immediatel­y with perjury indictment­s, which would be pretty straightfo­rward.”

A perjury charge in Georgia, which carries a maximum 10- year prison term, could be used to leverage testimony for more serious conspiracy charges carrying a maximum 20- year term, according to legal experts. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis hired an expert in conspiracy cases against Racketeeri­ng Influenced and Corrupt Organizati­ons and legal experts said she may pursue RICO charges in this case.

A RICO charge alleges the suspect participat­ed in at least two crimes, as part of a pattern of criminal activity. State and federal prosecutor­s – including Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani – have wielded RICO laws in recent decades to combat organized crime and drug dealing. Dozens of charges qualify to build a RICO case, including perjury, bribery and tampering with witnesses or evidence.

Willis has brought RICO cases against Atlanta school officials and alleged gang members, which is why some legal experts expect her to use the statute in the Trump investigat­ion.

Tom Morgan, a criminolog­y professor at Western Carolina University and a former district attorney in DeKalb County, Georgia, said he probably wouldn’t pursue stand- alone perjury charges from a grand jury because those cases are difficult to prove. But he said perjury felonies could become part of a broader RICO case.

‘ Testi- lying’

Perjury carries a prison term of one to 10 years and a fine of up to $ 1,000 if convicted under Georgia state law. It’s defined as “knowingly and willfully” making a false statement under oath in a judicial proceeding about something important to a case.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney said the part of the report to be released Thursday “discusses the concern that some witnesses may have lied under oath during their testimony to the grand jury.”

Defenses against perjury charges include witnesses thinking they were telling the truth or making a false statement without knowing it was a mistake.

An average of fewer than 30 people per year during the last decade were charged with perjury in Georgia and fewer than 10 per year were convicted, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigat­ion. Yearly conviction­s twice peaked at 17 during the last decade and there were none last year, GBI said.

Samuel Gross, a law professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, said perjury is common, but prosecutio­n of it is rare. Anecdotall­y in civil cases, witnesses sometimes lie in response to questions they consider unrelated to the point of the case, Gross said. In criminal cases, police might lie about the justification for a search or defendants might lie to avoid being found guilty, he said.

“Perjury is really, really, really common,” said Gross, referring to a phrase he doesn’t like: “testi- lying.”

Feds have convicted witnesses for lying to investigat­ors

Federal prosecutor­s have charged witnesses with lying to investigat­ors, either as stand- alone charges or in combinatio­n with broader cases.

Among the conviction­s in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigat­ion of Russian interferen­ce in the 2016 election were retired Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, of lying to FBI investigat­ors; Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign chairman, for conspiracy against the United States for making false statements; George Papadopoul­os, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, for making false statements to the FBI; and Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer, for making a false statement to investigat­ors. Trump later pardoned Flynn, Papadopoul­os and van der Zwaan. Gates cooperated with prosecutor­s.

Special counsel John Durham’s only conviction in his probe of how the Russia investigat­ion got started came when former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to falsifying an email used to support the surveillan­ce of a suspect.

What is Fulton County investigat­ing?

In Fulton County, Willis asked the special purpose grand jury to investigat­e attempts to interfere with the 2020 election.

The inquiry covered Trump’s call on Jan. 2, 2021, to state Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, asking him to “find” enough votes for Trump to win the state. Trump has denied wrongdoing and described the call as “perfect.” Another aspect of the inquiry deals with the Trump campaign recruiting an alternate slate of presidenti­al electors, in an attempt to switch Georgia’s results from President Joe Biden to Trump.

The 75 witnesses who were summoned included Trump advisers such as Giuliani; Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS. C.; and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R- Ga.

Giuliani, who was told he is a target of the investigat­ion, testified to state lawmakers about alleged voter fraud. Graham called Raffensperger and his staff in the weeks after the election. Gingrich advocated a strategy to have the House decide the election, which Trump would have won because a majority of state delegation­s were Republican.

Giuliani, Graham and Gingrich have each denied wrongdoing. No charges have been filed and their testimony hasn’t been revealed.

Cunningham said if he were Willis, he wouldn’t charge Trump immediatel­y – even if he could – because the former president has numerous defenses that could slow down the case. Instead, Cunningham said people charged with perjury could become cooperatin­g witnesses against higher- level conspirato­rs.

“That puts the district attorney in a position to immediatel­y start working with defendants who might become cooperatin­g witnesses and could really open things up,” Cunningham said.

 ?? DUSTIN CHAMBERS/ USA TODAY ?? Fani Willis, district attorney for Fulton County, investigat­ed attempts to improperly influence the 2020 election in Georgia.
DUSTIN CHAMBERS/ USA TODAY Fani Willis, district attorney for Fulton County, investigat­ed attempts to improperly influence the 2020 election in Georgia.

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